(This was written a few days ago, but we have been hemmed in by China Lake Weapons Station, Death Valley, the Mojave Desert and the Sierra and Inyo Mountains, in no towns bigger than a pit-stop and no wifi.)
Ah, it may seem as if we are away from the news, but we carry it with us. Steve loves his NPR, so it is our frequent companion. Like many of you, I woke up this morning trying to see my own life in perspective—how we all barely outrun the crazy man with the gun, metaphorically… and increasingly, in reality. We can feel the hot breath of the end of life on our skin every day; though whatever form it takes will inevitably surprise us: the pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, whatever kind of disease, the sudden accident, the drunk on the road, the precipitous fall off the roof, the sweet or sorrowful surrender, losing our mind, or our body slowly or quickly… it will surprise us. Because of that sure knowledge, we also understand that life is tenuous and fragile and precious. Today, along with the daily journey of our own existence, we carry the helpless and inconsolable heartache of a horrific school shooting, powerless to help the Syrian refugees struggling with the cold or the inconceivable tragedy of elephant families killed for ivory trinkets.
It isn’t that we can heal our hearts with this travel. It’s more like we take this pain, all of it, all the land ravaged and the humans and animals so carelessly killed, and we carry it out to the sky and the air and the earth and scatter it like ashes. We burn the grief with our campfires, and we live a simple life. We live a life now more like the rest of the world than when we are home; more elemental, uncomplicated and somehow, more right. We can’t make bad things go away. At home, we would gather with friends and family and hold them close. We would share the anguish. On the Road, we balance the sorrow with the goodness, the beauty, the surprises and the unexpected generosity and the gift of public spaces.
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada, was such a find. A sacred place of the Piute and Shoshone peoples, it is a natural desert oasis, full of life. “It was a place we used to waterski and have a great time”, I was told by a local. “Now, it’s all Government Protected.” The tone in his voice was scornful. So we went out to see it. We walked on a boardwalk that allowed us to see the place up close and personal. Non-native species are being taken out. Native species, from the smallest pupfish to the mountain bluebird and verdin thrive; migratory birds have a place to rest and feed. Interpretive signs opened up what we were seeing, illuminating things directly in front of us that we could so easily miss. The Great Basin AmeriCorps young adults work in keep the boardwalk in good shape. Once again, I think this is an under-sung and under-appreciated aspect of our country. I urge everyone to get out and enjoy and support efforts like this, and let the sentient and deep wisdom of this continent heal the injuries inflicted by our culture and our times.
Our caravan is small, our camps minimal in a way only Strider could conceive of as luxury. At the same time, we are surrounded by the enormous prosperity of this country in every way, from the obvious to the more precious and the more subtle wealth of a campground like this one we inhabit for the night in Furnace Creek, Death Valley. Each campsite is its own nation; from humble tents to rigs so big a whole extended family could call it home. But we are all here, in this astonishing place; protected, interpreted, restored by a cast of characters in the epic tale that is the creation and preservation of the National Parks of this country.
We have been through some harder times since leaving Phoenix. Got stuck in soft sand so deep I really wasn’t sure if we’d just driven Into the Wild or what. That was outside Parker, California. Lucky us, the tow company came prepared for Cheechakos (Alaskan term for idiot beginners). They happily hauled us out with their oversized four-wheel drive rig and collected their $300. Steve and I got off kilter for awhile, and had those moments when you both wish you were somewhere else with someone else. Then the hard rains came, ironic . . . since we were in one of the driest parts of the world, approaching Death Valley. We had a magical morning in a natural hotsprings outside of the tiny town of Tecopa under clouds gathering and coming in darker and darker, then ran for the comfort of Vegas in the downpour. Steve had a nephew he wanted to see, and that evening, we rubber-necked our way around Paris, Las Vegas—not gambling, but just looking around like the flabbergasted tourists we were. It rained, but at least we weren’t stuck in the van!
Now, things have smoothed out again, and here we are on a warm December evening, in a Death Valley campground. The stars are spread across the velvety black sky. A new moon is beginning its circuit. Death Valley is awesome; one of those places that has a name like legend and plenty of character. It holds the record for the hottest place on Earth (134 degrees; 40 months without precipitation) but after all the rain and cold, we loved and needed every minute of relative warmth (about 62 degrees during the day and 38 at night). The salt flats of Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level, is officially the lowest place on the American Continent. Often, the perception of the places you get to are completely shaped by the places you’ve just been through. With that in mind, I sure appreciated this rocky, earth-toned palette with eternal autumn colors, an impossibly dry low valley, framed by brown mountains, tipped with snow and a radiantly blue sky.
Soon, we will be in snowy South Lake Tahoe for my birthday, Solstice 2012 and Christmas with both kids. It will be good to stop for awhile though the weather will be COLD and snowy. It will be great to be with our loved ones. After that, we have a month still left on our journey! We both agree, we must find a location to rest and sit, somewhere relatively warm and cheap, or more preferably, free, for a couple of weeks in January. The travel has been good but the nights are nearly 14 hours long. We need some interior time. Anyone have a place they know of? We can take of pets or other things, do work exchange, manage/caretake an area, cook, etc. Mid or southern California, most likely.